J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Pretty Good’ Category

The Prisoner (1955)

Posted by J on February 3, 2011

The cardinal is arrested.  He is told that he is a man of the church, someone outside of the state.  For suspected treason, he is interrogated and tortured for weeks, and he is ordered to confess his crimes against the state.  So goes the setup of The Prisoner (1955), a movie relevant today for its portrayal of a lawless democratic regime that has no regard for habeus corpus or human dignity.

This movie was somewhat scandalous when it was first released.  Banned at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, the movie might have been considered, by any viewer, an attack against post-World War II, Western governments that were occupied by Germany during WWII.  In the opening scene, the cardinal, pictured on the DVD cover, is arrested just after mass.  What he is arrested for is unclear.  He soon faces an interrogator, a seemingly friendly man whose job it is to get the cardinal to confess something.  This begins a battle of wits between the two men.  But the interrogator has resources on his side; he can edit the cardinal’s tape-recorded words, and he can torture him psychologically.

What crime did the cardinal commit?  We are never even told. The Prisoner is quite vague on details, and so it can apply to many historical scenarios.  The characters do not have names; they are simply the cardinal and the interrogator.  We do not know the country in which the cardinal is arrested, although there are hints that it takes place in France.

We do, however, know that both he and the interrogator were part of the Resistance movement against their former Nazi occupiers.  After the war, each man finds himself loyal to different authorities.  The cardinal’s chief crime, it seems, is to harbor some loyalty to an authority outside the state, in this case, the Catholic church.  As he tells the interrogator, the modern Western state that has arrested him has acted no differently than the Nazis.  The Prisoner is adamant that democracies can be totalitarian tyrannies.

Essentially a simple morality tale about the modern state run amuck, the movie is a setpiece for its two main actors, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins.  Guinness plays the cardinal, a man subjected to thorough psychological examination, whose crimes — a suicide attempt in his past; little affection for his mother — really amount to nothing except “human weakness”.  The interrogator, played by Hawkins, tries to know the cardinal better than the cardinal knows himself.  His attempted friendship, however, will only be used to get the cardinal to confess uncommitted crimes against the state in court.

The highlights of the movie are its themes about democratic tyrannies — as relevant today as ever — and the interplay between Guinness and Hawkins.  The script is its chief problem; many lines and scenes are predictable.  We wished that Graham Greene would’ve written this script instead, but Greene would never have written anything this aesthetically simply.  The movie displays many of Greene’s major themes, one of which is the Western trudge towards a totalitarianism accepted by the general populace.  The key character in the The Prisoner is the interrogator, a nice man, whose unquestioned allegiance to the state ruins the application of his intelligent mind and warps his human compassion.  There are a lot of these people today.

Advertisements

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Inception

Posted by J on January 25, 2011

It seems odd to think of Inception as a science-fiction heist flick.  While it is just that, it never feels like that.  Perhaps that’s because, as viewers, we’re too absorbed and distracted to think about this.  Instead, we are constantly trying to listen for and learn this movie’s rules.  It has a lot of rules.  It makes them up as it goes along, but that never bothered us.  The movie is its own self-defined fantasy world.

Others have had problems with the movie’s logical expositions.  There are lots and lots of didactic moments, where the characters tell each other — and thus the audience — exactly what the rules of the dream world are.  These didactic moments are necessary because the movie is complicated.  The main character, Cobb, must implant an idea in Robert Fischer’s mind.  The way to do this is through dreams.  To get Fischer to believe that his recently-deceased father, head of a major energy corporation, wants Fischer to be his own man and split up the company, Cobb must create a dream within a dream within a dream.  Then he must guide Fischer through these dreams. Usually Cobb is involved in missions called “extractions,” in which he finds an idea in someone’s mind, but his mission here is the much harder process of idea-implantation known as “inception.”

To perform inception, Cobb must assemble a team.  He picks a chemist, a forger, a right-hand man, and an architect.  The architect creates the dream worlds, which must be enclosed, complex mazes so that the dreamer doesn’t realize that he/she is dreaming.   Cobb’s architect, a college student named Ariadne, finds that dream worlds are planes of “pure creation.”  There is a sense of wonder about this, but also dread.  A dreamer’s subconscious can turn upon other dreamers, attacking them with its manifestations.  And then there’s the problem of Cobb.  In dreams, Cobb’s dead wife keeps showing up and ruining his plans.  Ariadne worries that Cobb’s involvement will ruin the inception of Fischer.

It is nearly impossible to criticize this movie’s logic because it is its own self-contained entity.  We could ask, why is it safe to have three dream levels, but four dream levels is dangerous, the fourth level being the dreaded “Limbo,” which is the realm of “unreconstructed dream space”?  Why does the dream world experience zero-gravity if the dreamer experiences zero gravity?  We could go on questioning, but that’s pointless.  Questions like these do arise because, somehow, someway, the movie seems far more realistic than it really is.  The technology that makes shared dreaming possible is barely noticeable — it’s just a small, shiny gray box.  What does the box do?  How does it work?  Again, these aren’t relevant questions for this movie.

Inception‘s dream worlds resemble reality, but they allow architects to create entirely new, enticing places. This can be dangerous.  Cobb and his wife, Mal, once spent decades in a dream world, though technically it was only minutes of reality.  Mal loved the dream world too much.  As the movie shows, she loved an abstraction of real life — a fantasy world of statis — more than our everyday reality that necessarily involves time and change.  The threat to Cobb and his accomplices is that they, too, will get stuck in “Limbo” forever.

There are some obvious themes, then, that relate to modern addictions to fantasy worlds.  In a certain sense, we get sucked in to virtual worlds, whether in a video game, or a TV show, or online.  These virtual worlds must be fairly potent; for examples, head to your local library and witness dozens of people playing mindless games, fantasizing in Second Life, or creating new personalities on social networking sites. As with Inception’s dream box, these newer, digital mediums create dreams for us to inhabit and lose ourselves in.

Also, the movie touches on whether the mind is constructed by culture and influenced by visual communication.  Cobb’s mission is to implant an unwanted idea into another’s head.  This is a reasonable working definition for “propaganda.”  The idea that words and images can create reality — can bend or distort reality — is a powerful one for 20th century philosophy.  It is also the idea behind advertising.  While we think some arguments for the power of images to shape minds go too far, images certainly have some motivating effect on us all.  Watch this Darren Brown video on subliminal advertising for an example.  What Brown does is not far from what Cobb does in Inception.

It’s worth pointing out that Inception is an amalgam of other movies.  It’s already well known that the movie uses Fred Astaire’s dancing sequence from Royal Wedding, as well as various James Bond ski-resort scenes.  It also has major elements of every heist movie yet made, though the way Inception uses them to invent its own, unique world is probably the movie’s greatest success.  Implantation of ideas into another’s mind has long been a plot device for sci-fi.  We recently watched an episode of the 1960s series The Prisoner in which this was attempted (see “A.B. and C.“).  As a compilation of other movies, Inception is its own dream world.  It is about the effect of movies on viewer behavior, and it is about itself.

(Addendum: What’s interesting about this movie, psychologically, is the way that it conveys the directional space of dreams so effortlessly. In the final sequence, there are four dream levels.  As confusing as this could be, we know intuitively that these levels are layered, that one is on top of another.  We still can’t figure out why we get this certain feeling of the dream layers being organized vertically, but the movie pulls it off.  Well done.

Also novel is the ticking clock used in this movie.  Instead of a timer that counts down to zero, a van that falls off a bridge into the ocean is the clock.  This is an example of the way that the movie reinvents many cliches of the action genre.)

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Pretty Good, Reality-Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 1 Comment »

Winter’s Bone

Posted by J on January 19, 2011

Winter’s Bone is that rarest of movies that has a modicum of respect for the most hated of classes, the rural, poor  white.  I have been reading through Stuff White People Like recently, in which there is a repeated observation that there are “white people” — meaning hip, liberal-ish urbanites — and the “wrong kind of white people.”  This “wrong kind” has certain, vulgar tastes that offend the sensibilities of white people: Budweiser, professional wrestling, pickup trucks, Ed Hardy clothing.  And this offense is affirmed by dozens of movie examples.  Usually in Hollywood it’s the poor rural white who gets to play the moron, the buffoon, or the serial killer.  So when I see that a movie about poor, rural whites wins major film awards, I get a bit suspicious about its portrayal of the “wrong kind.”  (Confession: I am of the “wrong kind.”)

Yet, while there are some creepy people in Winter’s Bone, most of the poor Arkansas characters depicted therein are decent folk.  The movie, if I am reading it correctly, does not look at these characters condescendingly, but instead lets viewers enter their world and experience it in a fairly neutral way.  Incredibly, this movie is a reasonable presentation of the “wrong kind.”  This is especially true of the main character, Ree, a 17-year-old girl who must take care of her sick mother and two younger siblings.  Because of her delinquent father, Ree is forced to learn to be a caretaker and provider. She and her family live in a cabin in the Ozarks.  Ree attends school, but also must find food and fuel for her family, which includes shooting squirrels and chopping wood.  Ree’s family is almost too poor, and so they must rely on the good will of neighbors for provisions.

The backdrop to Ree’s life is drugs.  She has avoided them, but a few of the characters are either addicted to them — as is the case with her uncle, nicknamed Teardrop — or are making them.  The drug of choice to make is meth.  Her father’s involvement with meth is greatly responsible for his absence.  The story begins when Ree’s father, Jessup, has gone missing.  This isn’t all that unusual, but the stakes are far higher this time, because Jessup has put up the family home and their acreage on his bailbond.  He must show up to court, or else the family will lose everything.  Ree discovers that no one knows where Jessup is.  To avoid being instantly homeless in a week’s time, she tries to find out where Jessup is.

Netflix calls this movie “noir” and a “detective story.”  Others have called it an “odyssey.”  All of these descriptions are somewhat close to the mark, but none are precise.  It is above all else about the persistence of Ree to help and provide for her family, and the movie returns again and again back to Ree’s homestead.   At 17, she is now father and mother of this household.  Late in the movie, she tries to join the Army to get the $40,000 that the recruitment poster offers her.  And she risks harming herself by confronting shady characters to find out where exactly her father is.

Fatherlessness is the main issue of the movie.  Jessup’s absence is at the forefront. Indeed, there would be no plot without his absence, and he is practically a main character, someone talked about in almost every scene.  He has, we are told, loved his family, but he is also an adulterer and a drug runner.  When we finally meet him — alive or dead, I will not reveal — he is dealt with surprisingly.

Winter’s Bone offers what hope it can.  The growing kindness of Teardrop, coupled with Ree’s determination, are all that we can hang on in the film’s rather bleak, cold world.  This hope, however, is not enough, and I highly recommend that you not watch this movie in a semi-depressed or despairing mood.  Yet the characters are fairly realistic, people like I have personally experienced, and above all the movie represents them as human beings, and not as moronic rednecks or depraved sickos.  Hopefully it contributes what it can to overturning the notion that these kind of white people are the “wrong kind.”

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | 1 Comment »

Malcolm X

Posted by J on January 16, 2011

At the end of Malcolm X, we see a succession of contemporary black children declare “I am Malcolm X.”  Yet after three and a half hours of Malcolm’s bio, we are left asking, “So which Malcolm X are you?”  Like all good screen biographies, this one shows the multiple contradictions — indeed, multiple selves — — of a controversial public figure.  Like all screen biographies, it also argues something about its subject.

What it argues exactly is rhetorically complex.  Consider the opening scene.  We hear Malcolm X declare that the “white man,” more or less, is the scourge of human history.  His speech is overblown, ridiculous, and hateful, yet the opening shot is of an American flag.  The reference is to the opening scene of Patton, in which George C. Scott gives a speech in front of an American flag.  Patton, in that scene, is not to be taken seriously, and so the reference implies that we are not to take Malcolm X seriously.  But then intercut between shots of the flag are shots of the Rodney King beating by white, L.A. police officers.  So what’s the argument here?  That Malcolm X has a point?  That Malcolm’s hatred is made legitimate by the King video?  That Malcolm is a better Patton, wacky yet honorable?

The movie shows Malcolm X as a man who grows up intellectually, who moves through various stages of life until he embraces the modern-day notion of sociopolitical diversity and pan-religious ecumenism.  But throughout most of the movie, he is neither a a diversity lover nor an ecumenist.  In the film’s opening third, Malcolm parties and hustles.  He does what some young men do: parties, two-times, and yucks it up with his buddies.  We are shown, however, that underneath Malcolm is a brooding hatred of racism.  This hatred stems directly from his youth, during which his father was harassed and killed by the KKK, and his mother was put in an insane asylum unjustly.  As a boy, Malcolm was basically orphaned, and the white folk tell him that he, a Negro, must learn his place.

When Malcolm goes to Harlem in his 20s, he turns into a gang-banger and robber.  He is caught and sentenced to at least ten years in prison.  There, Malcolm converts to Islam.  The movie teases its viewers (those who don’t know Malcolm’s bio) by hinting that Malcolm at this point will escape racism and crime with his conversion.  But, clearly, Malcolm travels from one kind of foolishness to another.  Malcolm begins to believe the teachings of Elijah Mohammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam.  It is a quasi-cult group.  As well, the reason for Malcolm’s conversion has nothing to do with a religious awakening, but it is entirely racial and sociopolitical.  Once out of prison, after a long period of self-education, Malcolm begins a leadership role in the Nation of Islam that has him prefacing most every sentence with “The Honorable Elijah Mohammed teaches …”

Here the movie shows a split Malcolm.  In public, Malcolm X is a black racist.  Angry and defiant rhetorically, yet calm and educated, Malcolm denounces all whites everywhere.  When a young white girl apologizes to him for her ancestors’ crimes and asks what she can do, he replies “nothing.”  Malcolm’s rhetoric is racialist and separatist, which has appeal to some inner-city blacks.  This sociopolitical change in Malcolm’s outlook is figured by his dress; in his pre-prison days he wore colorful suits, but in his post-prison day he wears black-and-white.  He now is straightforward and binary, and those are the only two colors he seems to see.

However, in private Malcolm X is, bizarrely, white bourgeois.  He lives in an ordinary home, wants to be a good father and husband, deeply cares about his wife, and does all things that a movie dad should do in a those warm comedies about bourgeois life.  What changes him into such a softie is his marriage to his wife, also a member of the Nation of Islam.    This bourgeois Malcolm X is ironic and unexpected, but it greatly helps us viewers in liking him during his racialist years.

After many years, Malcolm discovers that he is in a cult.  As with all cults, sex and power are the major issues.  Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm discovers, has had multiple affairs.  Further, Malcolm’s public image is too powerful for the leaders of the Nation of Islam, who have all (except for Malcolm!) been made rich by the growth of their cult.  Even after Malcolm finds out the truth about Elijah Mohammed, he remains relatively loyal.  But he makes a verbal gaff when, after JFK’s assassination, he describes the president’s death as “the chickens coming home to roost.”  This statement is a PR problem for the Nation, and offers a good excuse for Elijah Mohammed to silence Malcolm X for ninety days.

During this ninety-day silence, Malcolm makes a trip to Mecca.  It is during this trip that he has another conversion.  In Egypt and Mecca, he experiences the world.  He witnesses pan-racial unity.  He has spiritual experiences.  He is, for a time, a “complete human being.”  Once he returns to the U.S., Malcolm dissociates himself from the Nation of Islam.

This begins Malcolm’s final stage in which the Nation tries to kill him, and he submits to assassination.  The movie argues that the CIA, or perhaps FBI, was involved in the assassination.  But it also says that Malcolm himself was involved in it.  The long, protracted final scene in which Malcolm is to give a speech in Harlem is also one in which he submits to death.  Somehow, he knows when he will die, and he chooses to do so in front of his wife and children.  Because of this, the movie argues that he renounces his bourgeous self for a greater purpose: he will become a martyr.

What is he a martyr for?  That is not exactly clear. One of the movie’s ironies is that, even though Malcolm and the Nation of Islam preach against all white people, they end up fighting each other.  These internecine black wars are something that Malcolm renounces but nevertheless helped create.

The movie tacks on an unnecessary tribute to Malcolm X, given by a schoolteacher, children, and Nelson Mandela.  They celebrate him, even though four-fifths of the movie shows him as either a gangbanger or as a racialist.  Which Malcolm X are the children who declare themselves to be Malcolm X?  The racialist?  The bourgeois father and husband?  The self-educated wit?  The Muslim?  The diversity champion? The martyr?  Take your pick.

Posted in Period Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

The Hurt Locker

Posted by J on January 8, 2011

The Hurt Locker is a pretty good attempt to realistically depict the War in Iraq (2003-???), which is probably the best reason to call it the best picture of 2009, which the Motion Picture Academy did.  It does not, however, say anything that older war movies haven’t.  The same kind of experience is depicted in Black Hawk Down, only better, because that movie offers a fatalistic, yet herioc approach for soldiers in a no-win conflict.  The message of The Hurt Locker ultimately falls far short and is even quite annoying.

The movie follows an army bomb squad through several of its missions, all of which involve disarming IEDs.  During each mission, the soldiers have to watch out for enemy Iraqi who might explode the IEDs, and so by default all Iraqis become enemies.  It is tough duty. Anybody disarming the bombs can be killed quickly, as the first mission in the movie shows.  After the bomb disposal expert dies early on, Sergeant William James takes over, and here the movie proceeds.

James becomes fearless, even reckless, in his attempts to disarm bombs.  While he gets the job done–living up to his name, which recalls the famous American pragmatist philosopher–he sometimes puts his team members in harm’s way.  This team, made up of two soldiers, Sanborn and Eldridge, recognize that James is addicted to adrenaline rushes.  But there’s nothing they can do about it.  This is particularly clear to us viewers, who see the men during their downtime play shoot-em-up video games and punch each other in the stomach for fun.

The movie depicts the war as an obvious colonial campaign.  Iraqis deal with that in different ways, but the soldiers ultimately must suspect everyone, pointing their weapons and shouting at everyone, which, as James says, creates insurgents out of innocents.  The best set of scenes is when James goes off-base by himself.  Thinking that a young Iraqi boy who sold DVDs on the army base has died, James ventures into the Baghdad night.  Where he ends up and how he gets back is probably the best part of the movie.

Despite the excellence of this movie, I violently disagreed with its ending, which will now be revealed.  The ending implies that James and soldiers like him cannot get enough of war, that despite having family (James has a wife and child), there is only “one thing” that James loves.  That is the adrenaline rush of disarming bombs.  Near the end, we see James in a grocery store, staring at the endless boxes of cereal. The point is that he gets no satisfaction out of consumerism, and perhaps that’s all the U.S. offers him.  We’ve heard that message a thousand times.  In the end, James goes back to Iraq to diffuse more bombs.  His fearless behavior got one of his team members seriously injured, a fact that doesn’t seem to make James remorseful at all.

I think the point here is that U.S. soldiers learn to love war, even in goalless conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq.  While it is true that men can get addicted to battle and killing–see Niall Ferguson’s book on WWI–the message that soldiers forsake home and family to find happiness in war is one entirely without hope.  Kathryn Bigelow had already made another war movie, K-19: The Widowmaker, in which soldiers were in a pointless, thankless situation. But in that movie she depicted Soviet soldiers as acting bravely and courageously, and banding together to respect their fallen comrades.  Why not offer a similar message here about James and his squad?  You will remember that in Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence kills and then learns that he loves doing so, but this is disturbing both to him and us.  In The Thin Red Line, there are many different human reactions to the battle on Guadalcanal.   I would even accept a stoical resignation to fate as a message over what The Hurt Locker tells me.  All I’m asking is for honor to be conferred on these soldiers, especially James, and I don’t think the movie does that.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Posted in Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »

Wag the Dog

Posted by J on December 23, 2010

Wag the Dog is satire that doesn’t always want to be.  It could’ve aimed for the biting darkness of Dr. Strangelove, but it likes its character and Mark Knopfler’s soft guitar soundtrack is reminiscent of his music for the Princess Bride.  The movie is somewhat prescient in its depiction of media’s relationship to government during the last ten years.  Perhaps for that reason alone it deserves to be watched.

The premise is somewhat shaky.  The President of the U.S., eleven days before the end of his own re-election campaign, is accused of sexual misconduct with a teenager.  For some reason, the President is in China during a re-election campaign, who knows why at a critical moment in his career.  So the President’s team hires a fix-it guy, Conrad Black, who understands that reality is not what actually happens, but what the TV says happens.  Black’s mission is to distract the American people for eleven days so that the sexual misconduct story is effectively buried until the elections are over.  What to do, what to do?

Oh yes, of course. Start a war!  In the great American tradition of fomenting war by creating some incident and blowing it out of proportion — see the sinking of the Lusitania, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (which this movie basically predicts) — Black decides to invent a war with Albania.  His story involves Albanian terrorists and the threat of nuclear weapons smuggled into the United States.  To pull off this stunt, Black hires Stanley Motss, a longtime Hollywood producer who is more interested in doing his job perfectly than in thinking about the morality of inventing a war.  Motss creates a scene of horror with Hollywood magic: a young girl holding a bag of Tostitos is transformed by Motss into an Albanian girl with a kitten who runs away from terrorists.  This scene with the Albanian girl is broadcast nationwide.  For Motss, it’s glorious, his best work ever.

Black and Motss manage to pull off their stunt, although they somehow survive a plane crash and handle a dangerous convict whom they are trying to turn into a warhero.  Their deception is fairly powerful.  They create patriotic music for the occasion.  When the CIA tries to stop them, Black reminds the CIA that all intel organizations have no purpose if there is no enemy.  He, Black, is creating an enemy.  Therefore the CIA should love what he’s doing.  After all, he’s preserving their jobs.  It’s almost as if Black, in 1997, has created the War on Terror — a war against an abstraction of an everlasting enemy who can always be used as a bogeyman.

My primary issue with the movie is that its world is too self-contained.  It castigates thoughtless patriotism at a national level, but is itself too nationalistic.  It assumes that Black’s fraud, which is international in scope, could not be known pretty quickly.  Surely the international press corps would realize that there is no war in Albania and jump on that lie, yet there’s no hint that any press beyond America’s exists.  Moreover, the movie stays within Black’s circle for the entire duration.  We only get to see the innerworkings of Black’s fraud, but never its effects on others (except on TV).  There, in fact, are a lot of people who can sniff out the lies of Presidents and news networks quickly and devastatingly.

The movie also simplifies the ways in which lies and frauds are perpetuated.  The fraud in this movie emanates from one place, Black’s group.  It is therefore nearly completely controlled by this group.  But real life is more complicated.  In Washington DC, there’s a vast network of self-serving bureaucrats and reporters who, first and foremost, are looking out for #1.  There are five major media corporations that print and publish news.  When there’s fraud, as with the fabled Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2002-2003, it’s a vast conspiracy in which everyone assents to and contributes to that conspiracy.

Still, the movie is quite useful in understanding the nature of our current “War on Terror.”

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 8 (some bad language)

Posted in Comedy, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

A Christmas Story

Posted by J on December 15, 2009

The Simpsons didn’t come from nowhere, and A Christmas Story appears to be a direct inspiration.  Here you have a somewhat dysfunctional family — a slightly mischievous kid, a goofy dad, and a forebearing mother — which is celebrated as a nuclear family.

Not having seen this since childhood, it’s surprising to us that this movie is now a Christmas classic that the whole family gathers around and watches.  Frankly, you can’t understand it well as a kid, probably not even as a teenager.  It’s told from the perspective of the voiceover narrator, who looks back on his childhood both nostalgically and critically.  The obvious lesson he learns is about human nature.  The man working as Santa Claus in the department store does not want to work past 9 pm, the Little Orphan Annie radio show manipulates you into participating in its Secret Decoder Ring group only to further market its Ovaltine product to you, and lying to your mother sometimes works.

These lessons, contained by several short stories that are strung together to make the movie, are what keeps the movie from veering off into goofy or childish comedy, and are therefore what gives it its potency.  Even the dream sequences, with their hammy acting, are interesting because they demonstrate what most everyone has thought at some point.  For instance, that your teacher is going to extol your praises once she reads the “brilliant” assignment you are turning in to her.

Consider the prize the Old Man wins.  As a kid, you don’t quite get why this guy is so thrilled that he won a woman’s leg as a lamp.  But it’s clear — if you’ve got the perspective that the voiceover narrator has — that the Old Man has his blinders on when it comes to the aesthetics of the lamp, and to how his wife views the lamp, but that he views it as a symbol of his intellectual prowess.  Like so many Tom Wolfe characters, the Old Man is promoting the triumph of Me.  He’s proud to display his ridiculous lamp in the front window of his house for all his neighborhood to see.  He believes vainly that his newspaper puzzle is a challenging test of brainpower that he has soundly defeated.  Of course, for his wife, the lamp is not only a violation of her household decor but also a kind of rival.

The absence of Christianity (this is the 1950s American Midwest) is curious.  Given the old man’s parenting ways, it’s not hard to see how kids like Ralphie can turn into 1960s teenagers — individualistic, hedonistic, and probably rebellious in one way or another.

Note: the movie contains a hilarious jump cut which you should watch for.  At the end of one scene, we see Randy walking into the bathroom and getting ready to sit down on the toilet.  Then the movie cuts to a pot of boiling food on the stove and then pans over the kitchen table.  We’ve already seen Randy eat like a pig, so once again the joke’s on Randy.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 5

Posted in Comedy, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Food, Inc.

Posted by J on December 11, 2009

“Our food has changed more in the last 50 years than it has in the last 10,000.”  So begins Food, Inc., a short and incomplete documentary about industrial food production and the alternatives to it.  This is not, if you think these labels are somewhat negative, a “green” or environmentalist video essay.  It is at least trying to raise the question, “Do you know where your food comes from?”

Of course most people don’t want to envision the slaughterhouse, nor is the slaughterhouse in and of itself an evil.  Obviously the cow or the chicken has to be killed.  But Food, Inc. is concerned with how the cow or the chicken is raised and then turned into food.  The image of a farm environment does not correspond with reality, the movie says.  As it points out, most packaging at the supermarket implements a pastoral fantasy of a red barn, a older, friendly farmer, and green and golden fields.  And yet almost every cow or chicken these days is raised in a controlled environment in which bacteria (e.g., E coli) can be easily transmitted.

The movie ranges through a host of subjects, some of which are not directly on the topic of food production.  And yet it does not talk about most food production.  No mention is made of fruits and vegetables, or anything in a brightly colored box.  Mostly the subjects are meat and poultry and corn. The movie points out that corn is used in a majority of foods and grocery products.  It is subsidized so heavily that beef and poultry corporations can buy corn below the cost of production, which they feed to their animals.  This is a problem, the movie argues, because cows (for example) are meant to eat grass and yet corn-fed cattle are particularly susceptible to E coli.

Here is one place where the movie strays and neglects to give much information.  One advocate for food safety, a mother whose child died from an E coli infection due to the consumption of a hamburger, is featured prominently.  She tells her story, there is much pathos for her dead son’s story, and yet we do not see or hear the number of E coli infections and the likelihood of contraction.  We know that she, the advocate, is lobbying Congress — and is up against corporate interests which supposedly dominate Congress — but we do not come close to understanding the full scope of this issue.

Yet we do learn that food production is centrally controlled by a handful of multinational corporations, whose end goal is profit and the means to get there is increased efficiency and, if that doesn’t fully work, control of food legislation passed in Congress and state legislatures.  Monsanto comes off particularly poorly.  Owner of a patent for genetically modified soybeans, Monsanto strictly enforces its legal right to be the sole manufacturer of soybean seeds.  Farmers, then, must buy seeds from Monsanto every year, rather than save seeds from one year’s harvest and use them in the next.  Here it is apparent that Monsanto enjoys the federal government’s monopoly privilege and reaps the rewards, while farmers have mostly lost the understanding of how to save and engineer their own seeds, and when they try to, they face Monsanto’s wrath in the form of a lawsuit.

Just as shady, though not directly related to the topic of food production, are food corporations’ use of illegal immigrants.  Once again enjoying government privilege, these corporations are never raided for widespread use of illegals (who are paid rock bottom wages).  Instead the illegals themselves are captured 10-15 at a time, at their own residence, even if they’ve worked for their company for decades, so as to not interrupt production in the factories and to avoid a P.R. mess.  The movie argues that NAFTA caused a flood of cheap, subsidized U.S. corn into Mexico, which put millions of Mexican corn farmers out of business, causing them to relocate to the United States.

Food, Inc. is clearly on the side of “organic” food production, which, using only one example of a Pennsylvania farmer, is supposedly just as efficient but safer and more wholesome.  This farmer is perhaps the star of the movie, uttering such profundities as,”A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure, to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentalities.”

Unlike most expose documentaries, this one actually ends optimistically.  We are encouraged to know what we are eating, to buy organic, to start a garden, and if nothing else, to ask why we do what we do.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate value of watching Food, Inc.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 6

Morality: —

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Our Man in Havana

Posted by J on December 10, 2009

It’s the Cold War.  The fading British empire, in cahoots with the new American empire, needs a spy in Havana, Cuba.  Intelligence is vital to the nation.  The Cuban government is threatened by revolution.  So the spy you choose is . . . a vacuum salesman.

Our Man in Havana is the antithesis of the myth of James Bond.  It is Graham Greene’s take on the art of spycraft, which, because 20th century nation-states are involved, is inefficient, stupid, and self-serving.  Greene assumes that a government spy is concerned with the only incentive he has, which is to keep himself on the government payroll.  That means pleasing his superiors.  And that’s where our vacuum salesman, played by Alec Guinness, comes in.

Guinness is a fairly simple man with an imagination and a daughter who’s being pursued by an important Cuban government official.  He’s approached by the British Secret Service to serve as a contact, someone who will gather information and recruit others to gather information for the British.  The lure is money — Guinness wants to please his daughter, and himself, with a wealthy lifestyle.  He’d like to join the local country club.  So he becomes a secret agent.

Of course Guinness is incompetent.  Unable to approach anyone, let alone recruit them, Guinness resorts to making up intelligence.  Fantastic, science-fiction-like intelligence, in fact.  And of course the British Secret Service believe him.

The best parts of Our Man in Havana apparently derive from Graham Greene’s script.  There are a host of good lines, comments on modernity, which the actors do not seem to understand.  Burl Ives, as an ex-pat German doctor, is particularly inept as Guinness’ friend.  Maureen O’Hara is not suitable to her part, and so the movie — poorly cast except for Guinness — seems uneven and inconsistent in tone.

Yet anyone paying close attention can see what Greene was getting at.  Guinness becomes part of the bureaucracy of spycraft, in which each member, in order to please his superiors, feels free to lie to them.  Each of them has risen above their highest level of competence, and in the end they are all rewarded for that incompetence.  Surely this movie, unlike the dozens of spy thrillers that come out each other, is a worthy antidote to the myth of the superspy — the James Bonds, Jack Bauers, Jack Ryans, who are super-competent individual men who end up saving the world.  No, Greene says.  The average man in the bureaucracy is only after one thing — to serve himself.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 8

Morality: —

Posted in Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Valkyrie

Posted by J on May 23, 2009

It is hard to believe that Valkyrie is a Hollywood movie.  This is the industry where half the Best Documentary Oscars 200px-Valkyrie_postergo to Holocaust movies, and all of the major studio executives understandably have a tribal beef with Nazi Germany.  Valkyrie is fundamentally about Nazi officers — long-time Nazis — who at the end of WWII hatch a secret plan to assassinate Hitler and take over the German government.  The fact that these guys served the Nazi party for years is never explicitly mentioned and thus never questioned in the movie.  Never!  Quite unexpected.  A movie with this subject matter and with these lead characters has a 99.9% chance of containing at least one didactic, moral moment.

We’re not complaining, just amazed.  The major message of this movie — perhaps its only message — is that there was a German resistance, a supreme dislike of the Nazis by people in the Nazi party, and that this resistance cared deeply about its mother country.  The main character, Karl von Stauffenberg, repeats again and again how he is planning Hitler’s assassination for the sake of “sacred Germany.”  Think about that.  “Sacred Germany.”  We’ve all been taught to hate all Nazis, to distrust German history, to read into everything German that came before Hitler a deep wish for the Fuhrer’s “cleansing program.”  Yet Valkyrie wants to celebrate Germany, just without the Nazis.

That Valkyrie is slightly anti-PC doesn’t make it a good movie, and you’d think the fact that you know the ending of the movie before ever watching it would be sort of anti-climactic.  Suspense is what holds most $100 million-dollar-plus movies together.  This movie should have none, because you know that Stauffenberg fails and Hitler lives.  But no.  This movie is suspenseful, and it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve done a better job of keeping up the tension, even with a well-known ending.

One problem unaddressed here is what impact the assassination of Hitler would’ve had if Stauffenberg had succeeded.  This particular attempt — the last of 15 such attempts, we are told at the end of the movie — occurred in mid-1944.  Only nine months after that, Berlin fell and Hitler committed suicide.  So the impact of taking out Nazi high command might not have been as momentous as Valkyrie makes it out to be, though it’s a fun “What if …?” scenario to ponder for five minutes.

And it’s nice that a major motion picture dwells fondly on an old aristocrat.  Von Stauffenberg is an honorable guy, who in the movie is shown as deeply caring of his family and country.  There’s even a hint that he’s a Roman Catholic, and our guess is that he probably was.  Usually American movies diss aristocrats, even though American culture has its own faux-aristocracy made up of moronic celebrities and high-ranking politicians.  But von Stauffenberg is dignified and honored in Valkyrie, at least according to our redneck sensibilities.

During a pause late in the movie, C. turned to J. and asked, “Is this an all-time great?”  The answer is “no,” though it could crack a top-25 list of WWII movies.  But since C. is a female, who has a distinct taste for rom-coms but not one for war movies, this might be a good “guy” movie that you fellas can enjoy with your wives.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 8

This movie has nothing in it except one brief war scene and an F-bomb, which was carefully placed in the movie to keep it from getting a PG rating. Gotta love that idiotic ratings system! It’s otherwise a nice historical piece for the teenagers to see and learn from.

Posted in Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »